LOS ANGELES–Arkansas Tea Party leader Richard Caster gave all the appearances at least publicly of being a man genuinely outraged at what one of his Ozark Tea Party steering committee members said and did.
Inge Marler told a blatantly racist joke about blacks at a meeting of the Ozark Tea Party in Mountain Home, Ark., on the Baxter County Fairgrounds. And she reportedly did it in a mock black dialect. When the story hit the national wires, Caster claimed that he was aghast at Marler’s joke, raked her over the coals for it. She had resigned from the committee, and Caster implied in his statement that it was at least in part the result of his wrath.
Caster went on to add the obligatory retort that racism has no place in the Tea Party and ticked off the things that the Tea Party stands for—and that, he asserted, the media refuses to talk about in its rush to paint the Tea Party as racist.
There are problems with that, characterization, though.
Caster’s seeming outrage came only after word leaked out about the racist slur. Even more telling was the reaction of the lily-white audience: They erupted in uproarious laughter.
The Baxter Bulletin, which covered the event, noted that not one of the participants called Marler out from the floor about the joke and no one uttered a word of disapproval. The confab quickly went on about its business. Marler has not commented on the joke or her resignation.
Caster’s effort to deflect the ever-present charge of racism against Tea Party leaders and followers fell flat not because he personally may have been offended, or because so many chapter members (judging from their laughter) weren’t. It crashes hard against the brutal realities of the Tea Party’s past and present actions.
Only two years ago, the Tea Party unleashed a proliferation of Obama “Joker” posters—showing him as Batman’s ultimate nemesis—crude, racist scrawls on signs and banners, Confederate flags and Texas Lone Star flags.
Also, when the Tea Party backed Kentucky GOP ran Rand Paul for the U.S. Senate, it tainted itself with his kind of- sort-of put down of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In choosing Paul, who won, the state’s GOP implanted the notion that it holds the Tea Party as its captive and that it may well be the wholesale creation of racists.
In the months since then the racist posters, Confederate flags and racist digs at the President and First Lady Michelle Obama have largely disappeared. Rand Paul is now in his third year representing Kentucky in the U.S. Senate. But that doesn’t mean that the racism, which seemed to define—and be a driving force of—the Tea Party has disappeared.
It has morphed into political respectability around the country.
Recently, a white federal inmate in Texas got almost as many Democratic votes in the West Virginia primary as Obama. Obama was beat out by a politically unknown Tennessee lawyer in dozens of counties in that state’s Democratic primary elections. Surveys in Ohio showed that many whites will still not back Obama, not because of policy issue differences but because of race. These are Democratic voters, bear in mind.
Tea Party Democrats, Independents
But that’s no surprise. In April 2010, a Winston survey found that four out of 10 Tea Party adherents are not Republicans, but independents and Democrats.
A follow-up New York Times survey revealed that Tea Party backers were not ill-educated, low-income, blue-collar whites, mostly in the South and Heartland. The majority was middle class, and many are wealthy and highly educated.
The poll found that the single, overriding factor driving them, no matter their politics or party, was the feeling that the country was going in the wrong direction. This is not merely a case of respondents saying what they thought would be politically correct to survey takers, so as not to appear racist.
Nearly three decades ago, the GOP found that the volatile mix of big government and economics could whip frustrated, rebellious, angry whites into frenzy far better than crude race-baiting. Many middle-class and working-class white males genuinely viewed government as big, insensitive and a hopeless captive of special interests. Many more actually believed that they were losing ground to minorities and women in the workplace, schools and in society.
The target of their anger was big government, which they believed tilted unfairly in spending priorities toward social programs that benefited minorities at the expense of hard-working whites. That translated to even more fear, rage and distrust of big government and shouts to fight back against the erosion of personal freedoms.
Tea Party leaders, such as Caster, push back hard against the charge that the party is racist by endlessly citing popular anger at the perceived big-government creep, taxes and runaway spending. And they always frame their arguments in terms of “socialist leaning” Obama administration programs as the sole cause for their rage at Washington and mainstream politicians.
But Marler’s joke and the Ozark Tea Party chapter’s favorable audience’s reaction to it were not an aberration. It stands as a telling indictment that as long as race lurks underneath the carefully crafted veneer of Tea Party moderation the party can’t and won’t clean up its racist act.